“Bleak” is a great word to describe the world of The Banner Saga. The sun has stopped setting, the apocalypse is coming, and people are dying all around the player. As the leader of the caravan, the player’s decisions constantly cause starvation, mutiny, and death. The Banner Saga 2 picks up right where The Banner Saga left off, and I mean that literally, it begins at chapter 8 with all of the stats, items, and caravan deaths/decisions carrying over from the first game (alternatively, new players can start with a generic profile, and watch the recap of the first game). The player’s caravan is on the run from a seemingly unstoppable foe, with no time to lose.
The Banner Saga 2 focuses on multiple caravans with the shared goal of travelling to what is thought to be the last safe city in the world. Over the twelve hour experience, the player must negotiate, fight, and desperately claw their way through encounters where the wrong dialogue choice, or misplaced judge of character can cause the deaths of dozens of people, and the permadeath of playable characters. It’s a gruelling narrative that rarely fails to punish the player for trying their best to keep the group alive…and it’s also a lot of fun.
It’s kinda like the HBO show, Game of Thrones, in that it defies traditional storytelling conventions, and instead allows characters to die without notice, and rejects typical rules of morality. It’s a formula that keeps the player on their toes, and makes every decision that much more difficult than the last. Though it can sometimes be disheartening, it’s an environment that produces a ton of memorable moments.
The fact that the writing in The Banner Saga 2 is superb certainly helps as well. Each character has their own motivations, and possible story arcs, and rarely are characters as straightforward as they appear on the surface. I’ll avoid any spoilers about the game’s narrative, but the story is unsurprisingly depressing, and does not disappoint.The Banner Saga 2’s narrative is not very action-packed, and moves at a slower pace than most stories, but the excellent characters, and writing more than compensate for what is lacking in high-resolution explosions.
Although, The Banner Saga 2 offers a recap for the player, and does an admirable job at introducing new players to the world, I do feel that those who haven’t played the first game will be a bit lost. Many characters have hidden motives, and complex histories, which were revealed in the first game, and are lost on new players. Additionally, new players can expect to wait most of the game to figure out the full picture of why the caravan is really headed to their ultimate destination in the first place. I would strongly recommend that players play The Banner Saga before starting the sequel.
The Banner Saga 2 brings back the tactical, turn-based strategy combat used in the original game, but with many improvements. The class and enemy varieties are vastly improved from the first game, and the differences between the classes are more notable. The leveling system has also been greatly improved, and now features an in-depth talents system once characters have maxed out a base stat. The addition of the horseborn race partway through the game deepens the intricacies of combat even further, with a whole slew of unique abilities and traits.
While there are a lot of new additions to love about The Banner Saga 2’s gameplay, however, the core mechanics are mostly unchanged, which are sometimes to the game’s detriment. For example, the console controls are still mostly awkward and obtuse, especially now that combat is more complex than it was in the first Banner Saga. The player now has to learn to navigate even more menus and abilities with a pretty cryptic UI that hasn’t improved much from the first Banner Saga.
The environmental art, though beautiful, oftentimes also makes combat harder to navigate as a random tree, or rock will obscure the view of the battlefield. In some cases, the map is so large and crowded that entire characters will be hidden behind larger characters that are unfavorably position. The Banner Saga 2 provides no way to get a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, or tilt your angle, which is occasionally frustrating.
That said, the stunning vistas that seem to be the tradeoff for infrequent gameplay frustrations are well worth it. Banner Saga 2 is entirely painted by hand, and the attention to detail is jarring. Almost all of the combat areas in the game are unique, and fit into the area in the world that the characters are in. Outside of combat, the player marches through the dreary world, and is immersed in the apocalypse happening around them. The most impressive setpieces are the godstones, massive statues dedicated to the now-dead Gods, which make a return from the first game.
Following suit with the visual presentation, the sound of the Banner Saga 2 is very impressive. The music has a notably nordic sound to it, which fits into the world perfectly. The sound effects can be a little hit-or-miss, as some of the combat noise is overly simplistic, but everything that happens outside of combat is great. Characters don’t usually speak, as the game relies on written dialogue, but when they do speak the performance is solid and believable.